They are to console us
with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.
Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation.
--Geoffrey Hill (The Triumph of Love: CXLVIII)
This summer, I spent six weeks in Berlin; I had lots of time on my hands and not much money. Almost without fail, the free activities in any city are their parks and memorials. I guess one can’t expect the average member of the public to pay for the privilege to stare at a hunk of metal/wood/concrete and think sobering thoughts.
Berlin has a simply ridiculous number of public memorials. They are the sign of a city which can neither escape nor quite catch up with its complicated history. There are layers of memorials from conflicting superpowers, giving the even the most casual of passers-by an archeological primer of European History from at least the 18th century forward.
There are victory arches and memorials for the dead, toweringly iconic statues and easily missed metal plaques, spaces left intentionally open and markers disappearing into office buildings and restaurants, reminding one that people actually live here. It’s obvious, in a city like Berlin, that the desire to build a structure to commemorate something significant is not merely a modern obsession with self-reflection (the Pergamon’s collection of ancient monuments quickly proves this). It appears to be a deeply human need.
These memorials are not simple. The unique presence of each one left me with a messy knot of questions which has yet to be untangled.
Perhaps the most iconic Berlin building, the Brandenburg Gate, has been co opted by each ruling power in its turn. It’s nearly impossible for me to separate it from a Western-dominated narrative starring Reagan and the power of capitalism, but hearing the stories of anti-American protests on the other side of the wall during presidential visits reminds me to question my ingrained historical assumptions. Memorials are a ripe opportunity for propaganda, a way to recast history, and therefore ought to be considered with some suspicion.
The trail of the Berlin Wall meandering throughout and around the city marks the historical division subtlely, causing me to question the balance between remembrance and daily life. Does the most powerful memorial require our undivided attention or just quietly refuse to go away, day after day? I wonder who memorials are for, the living or the dead? Are they for the sightseer or the citizen?
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is perhaps the most sobering visit in the city. Its coffin-like blocks, undulating from a rising and falling landscape, draw one into its depths. Its grid beckons children to race through, unaware of the weight of what is around them. Having called it the Holocaust Memorial for years, its proper name reminds me that while it is easy to use Nazi Germany as a scapegoat, the rest of Europe (and America) shares the blame for centuries of horrific, anti-semitic actions.
Can a memorial actually communicate the weight of something like the Holocaust? If not, what is its purpose? What is the balance between being stuck in the past and properly affected by human depravity?
The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regimeis a quiet reflective pool. With news articles about the harassment of Roma throughout Europe still fresh in my mind, I wonder if a memorial implies that the tragedy is over. How do we properly sorrow while not forgetting that these actions are still on-going in many parts of the world? The changing titles of the Neue Wache Memorial (the Memorial for Victims of War and Tyranny) begs the same question.
There are three Soviet war memorials, the largest of which is located in Treptower Park. These memorials commemorate the Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin and the liberation of Berlin from the Nazis. Treptower Park is utterly striking, feeling more like a temple than anything else. It struck me as immediately inappropriate, given the horrors of Stalin’s reign. But then, I realize that it would be wrong to pretend that this (Soviet liberation/occupation) didn’t happen. The awkward reminder that one generation’s victory can be another generation’s tragedy is important in and of itself.
In reflection, the effect of many of these memorials is dulled. One can only emotionally consider so much at a time. But, the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime is one which has stuck with me. It’s a large gray stone box with a small window, set off a bit from a main trail in Tiergarten. It’s stature is striking, but the presence of the window draws one in. Peering in, you see a replaying clip of a couple kissing.
It communicates in simple lines the overpowering weight of death and persecution and the burden of a secret existence; I wonder if the reactions of unsuspecting visitors are an intentional part of the remembrance.
There is no label, no explanation, no plaque to give easy interpretation. As I think a memorial should, it forces one to see something which would be tempting to ignore, but raises the deepest human questions of what it means to love one’s neighbor and what it means to seek justice in a world that can be astonishingly evil and utterly confusing. It is, as Hill says of poetry, a sad and angry consolation.
- Think about the memorials that are important to your own nation’s history. Why were they designed as they were? Why were they made? What is their purpose?
- How can we emotionally reflect without being uncritical?
- What does it mean to remember well?